FAIRLAWN — Just on the other side of Memorial Bridge in Radford, the St. Albans Sanatorium brought a little blood, murder and mayhem into its St. Valentine’s Day celebration, executing a series of macabre scenes throughout its dark, musty halls in its second annual, “Forever and Always: Tales of Love Gone Wrong,” haunted house event, a unique, less-than-traditional way to spend a holiday known for its romantic notions, pretty flowers and plethora of chocolate candies.
The scenes, peopled by volunteers drenched in stage blood, wrapped in torn clothing and some wielding bladeless, yet horrifyingly loud gas-powered chainsaws, depict the aftermath of ill-fated romances.
A handful of volunteers, carefully concealed in half-obscured doorways, staggered and jumped toward suspecting, yet still caught off-guard patrons who followed the winding path through the century-old building, adding elements of shock and surprise to the already-creepy vibe of the building’s walkthrough tour.
A young, unnamed tour-taker, fresh from the outdoor exit and giddy with adrenaline, repeated to her friends who exited with her, “That was awesome! Chainsaws got me, man, chainsaws got me.”
Some were dressed in bloody lab coats, hacking away at body part props, some were wandering through rooms, zombies searching for lost loves (or tour-takers unlucky enough to grab their attention), and masked creeps cackling with demonic laughter at the bottoms of pitch-black stairwells.
“It’s a blast,” a volunteer, brandishing a bloody butcher knife in one of the basement chambers broke character just long enough to say, “I don’t have to get paid. (Dressing up and scaring tour-takers) is totally worth it.”
The Valentine’s Day haunted house event, one of a handful of increasingly popular horror and thriller events put on at the Sanatorium throughout the year, saw around 120 patrons its opening night a week ago, around 150 Friday night and close to 300 Saturday night, its final holiday performance.
“We don’t use expensive animatronic props, no big-budget machines either. Everything we do is live, done by a group of dedicated, talented volunteers who decorate, set up the haunted houses and act out the parts,” said volunteer Director of Operations Don Hanaver. “And the building. The building itself is a character, the main character, of these events. It’s scary enough on its own.”
A little history
Theatrics aside, the Sanatorium is steeped in local history and lore, both normal and paranormal. According to Hanaver, whose knowledge of the origin, history and supposed paranormal activity of the building is extensive, the sanatorium began its long life in 1892 as the St. Albans Lutheran Boys School. A prep school and perennial athletic powerhouse whose aggressive football players earned a reputation for the brutal bullying of its less physical, more studious students.
“They took over the school, and overran the town,” Hanaver said. “They only lost one game in the history of the (football) program, and liked to push people around. There were no confirmed deaths at the school, but there were rumors.”
Its headmaster, George C. Miles, unceremoniously packed up and left in 1908, and the school was shut down three years later.
In 1916, Dr. J.C. King took an interest in the property and reopened it as the St. Albans Sanatorium. Its name, Hanaver said, was a play on the more widely used sanitarium. While it did house and treat the mentally ill, it was also known for its treatment of alcoholics.
“It was more of a Betty Ford-type place for a while,” Hanaver said. “People would come here to dry out. It was also known for treating the mentally ill like human beings, unlike a lot of the sanitariums and asylums of the time, who treated them like animals.”
The facility went through a few changes in purpose over the years.
“It was a fully accredited hospital in the 1960s,” Hanaver said, “and the hospital sort of outgrew the facility in the 80s.”
A new building was built on the property, currently in operation today, and the St. Albans buildings were sold to Radford University.
Here’s where, according to Hanaver, the history gets a little murky, at least, from an ownership perspective. The property was sold to Radford University in 2004. Originally, he said, RU planned to renovate the main building, going so far as to get a grant from the state. It cleaned out the asbestos, then decided to tear the place down. It didn’t, and eventually the property went to auction. It was purchased in 2008, again to be demolished, but it never happened.
“Around then, Tim Gregory, who was a patient here in the 70s, I believe, talked some real estate people into renting it out with the intent to renovate, but that didn’t happen,” Hanaver said. “It didn’t pan out, but some paranormal people started showing interest.”
Around that time, paranormal-based “ghost-hunting” television shows were beginning to see a spike in popularity, and places, old hospitals, asylums and generally creepy old buildings started popping up on the small screen radar.
“We had a few ghost hunter people come in here and look around, stay the night, take readings. They thought it was creepy, said they found all kinds of paranormal things around this place, particularly in the electroshock therapy room and the boiler room,” Hanaver said. “Groups began paying to stay the night.”
A new company took over around 2010, and was more interested in the historical significance of the building itself than the paranormal, but embraced it nonetheless as a means to secure funds for future renovations. The sanatorium plays host to a number of macabre events, including a Zombie Prom, the Valentine’s Day haunted house, and its biggest event of the year, its annual Halloween Haunted House.
“We make enough on those events to operate the building, keep it open all year, and whatever’s left we’re using to fix the place up,” Hanaver said. “We’re making improvements all the time — we’re only about four thousand dollars away from bringing running water back in here, which means working bathrooms. That’ll be a big plus.
“The building itself is making a comeback — the intent is to keep fixing it up, make it something people can use for more than just ghost hunts and haunted houses. Right now, the paranormal aspect is what’s keeping it open, but after we get it fixed up enough, we want to focus more on the historical aspect. The architectural relevance alone is worth saving. The outer walls are three layers of interlaced brick, not just a façade. It’ll never come down. The windows are all hand-poured glass, the ones that haven’t been busted out by vandals or trespassers. It’s just a unique, neat place.”
The ultimate goal for the place is to turn it into a museum of sorts, a place where historical tours will run side-by-side, or in place of, ghost tours.
For now, the paranormal is king at the sanatorium. On April 26-29, The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) and Beyond Reality Events ghost hunters Trish Williams, Britt Griffith and others will put on a series of presentations and paranormal investigations at the site. The event is open to the public, and tickets are available for purchase on the Beyond Reality Events website.
It will also host a pair of as-of-yet unscheduled Zombie Apocalypse events — twice a year, nine areas of the building are set up for patrons to run through. Each patron has to clear each room without being “eaten,” or tagged, by a zombie. Patrons won’t be unarmed though. In the past they were given canisters of Silly String to defend themselves. If a zombie is hit, it will freeze long enough for the shooter to sneak by uneaten.
“The kids love that one,” Hanaver said.
Trespassing, breaking and entering — security step-up
Its reputation as a paranormal hotspot has garnered a few unwelcome living visitors as well — a pair of male intruders picked up on the building’s security cameras in the building’s two-lane bowling alley, broke in during daylight hours, carrying flashlights and what appeared in the video to be a handheld video camera.
According to the building’s security manager, Chuck Thornton, the pair were white males, appeared to be in their early to mid-twenties and were likely college students. The pair went directly to the bowling alley, indicating they had probably been there before. The break-in was reported to the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office, and the sanatorium is offering a $100 reward each for positive identification of the two. The security footage and stills of the trespassers, as well as contact information in regard to reporting and collecting the reward, are posted on the sanatorium’s Facebook page.
“These two people broke in, in broad daylight,” Hanaver said. “They looked like they knew what part of the building they were looking for. They left when they noticed the security camera.
“We have alarms on the doors and cameras around the building, and are working on beefing up security a bit more to keep break-ins, trespassing and the vandalism that usually comes with it at a minimum. We’re trying to put this place back together, not have people keep trying to tear it apart.”